The latest brouhaha over explicit imagery in work funded by the National Endowment for the Arts is not a story of Robert Mapplethorpe revisited. True, conservatives are again on the attack against federal funding for the arts. True, sex is again at the root of the controversy in this case, over Poison, a new NEA-supported movie by director Todd Haynes. But for the first time since John E. Frohnmayer was appointed chairman in 1989, the NEA is standing up to the right. And for the first time, the right is calling for Frohnmayer's resignation.
Poison, a film of three intertwined shorts using documentary and B-movie styles, includes a relationship between two male prison inmates, a scientist who experiments with a sex hormone, and a boy who kills his father.
But Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association has said Haynes' film contains ''explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex,'' and after viewing the movie last week, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition said it would launch a petition drive calling for the abolishment of the NEA. The Christian Life Commission is also demanding Frohnmayer's resignation. ''Frohnmayer seems predisposed to coming down on the side of the arts community against the views of America,'' says CLC lobbyist Jim Smith. ''We take that as an indication that he's not the man to be America's arts czar.''
With Poison, however, Frohnmayer surprised many in the arts by taking a stand against the right. ''There are parts of the film that are cruel, but in no way is violence glorified,'' he said, adding that Poison is ''neither prurient nor obscene.'' ''I was incredibly impressed with [the NEA's] strong reaction,'' Haynes says, ''and the fact that they seized this opportunity to affirm the film and their criteria for judging work.'' But, says Charlotte Murphy, executive director of the National Association of Artists Organizations, ''The real test will come when members of Congress support the conservative groups. Then we'll see if he sticks to his guns.''